At the tail end of last year, my production company, Generic Pool Productions, spent two days at West Road Concert Hall in Cambridge, UK recording a DVD video production for internationally acclaimed concert pianist, Grace Francis.
The video shoot itself was shot with a total of five cameras, two locked off, one operated by cameraman Oliver Horn in the balcony, the fourth operated on a glide-track alongside the piano by myself, and the fifth was a Polecam operated by John Gillan.
But today, I’m going to be talking about the audio side of things and how it was recorded. Of course the audio could have been recorded onto one of the five camcorders, after all, the camcorders I used all record linear PCM 48 kHz audio, which is CD quality. However, there are many reasons for not recording audio to a video camcorder, especially on a job such as this where the audio quality is critical. One such reason is ‘pre-amps’. The pre-amps that are built into camcorders are typically not that great, even moderately expensive ones costing around £15,000. For serious audio acquisition these built-in pre-amps are simply not good enough. Camcorder pre-amps are typically built for moderate audio purposes such as ENG work and spoken word. For serious audio purposes such as music video, or concert performances we require something a little more focused and intended for the purpose.
So for the DVD of the concert pianist I spent two days filming, I used a dedicated solid-state digital audio recorder, which has superior quality pre-amps built in, as well as all the relevant audio controls that I required to make fine adjustments to the pre-amps inputs and other various settings.
During post-production I simply took the five video-camcorders tracks of both audio and video and stacked them up on the timeline in Final Cut Pro. I then added the dedicated audio track that I recorded using the audio field recorder and synced them all up using the PluralEyes plug-in from Singular Software for Final Cut Pro. Once they were all synced together, I deleted all the audio tracks that came with the video so that I was left with just the dedicated audio track and five video tracks. The PluralEyes software is a breeze to use; it is one simple mouse click. However, to use this software I had to set up all the video camcorders so that they actually recorded the performance too. The fact that the audio quality recorded to the camcorders was not great didn’t matter, especially the camcorder in the balcony recording the concert grand piano using a build-in rifle mic from about 60 feet away. As long as the levels are right PluralEyes will have enough to work with, as it simply analyses the audio waveform and not the quality of the audio. PluralEyes saved me a ton of time in both production and post-production, as I didn’t have to mess about using a clapperboard for sync purposes. PluralEyes costs £99, but boy is it worth it, and it works to perfection.
The grand piano is by far one of the most difficult instruments to record from an audio perspective. This is because the sounds from inside the piano come from everywhere and they bounce around all over the place. Also, the piano is a percussive instrument, so obtaining a fine balance between the actual notes and the percussive attack as the hammers strike the stings, can be incredibly frustrating. Too much hammer strike will sound jarring and take away from the performance, especially if it is something delicate like a Chopin Nocturne. Too little hammer attack and the performance will sound too woolly. We need a small amount of hammer attack for authenticity and dynamics, but not too much.
For years, recording engineers have struggled with various miking techniques. There are many ways to record a concert grand piano; some engineers will place microphones inside the piano close to the strings and hammers, while others choose to place them on stands outside. Then of course they have to experiment with mic position, how far or close to the strings and hammers to place the mic, then there is height and angles. The methods are endless and you can spend days experimenting before you finally achieve the sound that you and the client are happy with.
The equipment and methods I used for this production are quite revolutionary, and very simple. I used just three pieces of equipment to achieve this retail quality DVD production for the concert pianist. I used just one stereo microphone, one digital field recorder and one pair of closed-back monitoring headphones.
The headphones I used were the industry-standard Sennheiser HD25 MK2 costing £165. The HD25 MK2’s are a closed-back design, which basically means external sounds don’t get in. DJ’s in nightclubs use closed-back design monitoring cans so they can be cueing up the next record while the existing record plays loudly in the club. I required closed-back cans so that I could monitor the audio quality and levels coming into the headphones, while not being able to hear the actual piano sounds outside the headphones.
The digital audio recorder I used was a Roland R-44 costing £800. The R-44 is a very compact design; about 6” across and an inch high. It is quite durable and well made, but I added further protection to it by using the optional carry case which has various flaps so you can still get to the switches, dials and XLR sockets.
The R-44 is powered by mains or battery. However, although the four AA batteries give you four hours recording, that time is drastically reduced to just one hour if you use phantom power so I used it on mains power supply as some of the pieces being performed by the pianist where quite long. Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition and Liszt’s Sonata in B minor are both 34 minutes long.
The R-44 records onto a single solid-state SD memory card. Now, video producers are probably thinking, “what, just one card slot”. Well fear not, audio is audio, and video is video. We only need one card slot in the R-44 because the recording times are phenomenal. Recording CD quality onto a single 8GB card will net you 755 minutes.
For most CD quality recordings you would typically set the R-44 to 44.1 kHz and 16-bit stereo. But as my production was for a DVD release, I set the sampling rate to 48 kHz. The R-44 can record in either 16-bit or 24-bit and at sampling rates anywhere from 44.1 kHz right up to 192 kHz.
The quality of the pre-amps in the R-44 are pretty amazing, way superior to those built into your average HD camcorder. It also has all the various inputs/outputs on the left side that are required for most audio recordings and four balanced XLR inputs on the right side. All the various pans and pot controls are neatly laid out on top of the device. All the other switches on top are all very clearly laid out, in fact I didn’t even need the instruction manual for the R-44 because it just made sense.
Finally, the microphone I used was an Earthworks PM40 (PM stands for Piano Mic), this was the most expensive bit of kit coming in at around £2,650. I chose this microphone because it is a unique design and it takes all the hard work out of miking up a grand piano. The PM40 is basically an aluminium telescopic pole with two lavaliere-type mics attached via built-in gooseneck arms. On either end of the pole there are two right-angle brackets. The PM40 sits inside the piano and the brackets either end rest on the edge of the grand piano. Earthworks recommend setting the mic up so that the two mics sitting on the end of the flexible arms sit approximately 3” behind and 3” above the actual hammers. They suggest this is a good starting point. Personally, I didn’t have to move too far away from these guidelines. You should also aim to have the two little microphones a third apart i.e. splitting up the keyboard into three equal thirds.
The two microphones are numbered so when the build-in lead is plugged into the little break-out box (comes supplied) you know which is Left and which is Right. Now, this next part is quite important. Many recording engineers have recently opted to have the Right channel at the bass end of the piano register and the Left mic at the treble end. When listening back to recordings done in this way on your hi-fi (assuming you have your hi-fi set up correctly of course) you get the perspective of being in the audience somewhere near the foot of the piano looking into the pianists face.
Personally, I don’t like this method; instead I chose to have the Left mic at the bass end (left side of the keyboard as you look at it from sitting on the piano stool) and the Right mic placed at the upper register of the piano. This way, when the listener hears the recording on their ‘stereo’ equipment they are hearing it from the same perspective as the actual pianist would hear it while he/she is playing. As I’m something of an ex concert pianist myself, this makes sense. For me, hearing it the other way sounds plain weird.
While I was setting up the Roland R-44 and the Earthworks PM40 I had the pianist play a slow chromatic scale starting at the very lowest ‘A’ bass note, then playing at the same constant volume all the way though every single note finally ending on the highest ‘C’. I had to get the pianist, Grace Francis, to repeat this several times while I made fine adjustments to the mic positions. It took no time at all with the PM40 mic to achieve equal temperament throughout the entire register of the Steinway Model D 9’ concert grand piano.
Grace needed time to run though the pieces that she was going to perform, this gave me and the other two cameramen a chance to set up camera angles and work out the blocking and staging of the Polecam and Glidecam. Once we started the actual recording, it mostly went without any hitches. Grace felt she could improve on the interpretation during parts of the Liszt and Mussorgsky, so she did another recording of both. She also made recordings of the Liszt Mephisto Waltz Number 1 and a special encore for the DVD. One week later, Grace and I met up at the Steinway Hall of Fame in London, where I did a 10 minute interview with her for bonus material on the DVD.
You can view my video tutorial of this, along with Grace playing the Liszt Mephisto Waltz Number 1 on my YouTube link below. And if you fancy making me rich, you can also buy the DVD via the link below.
Roland R-44 link: http://www.roland.com/products/en/R-44/
Nigel Cooper video tutorial link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=27AQZJ0zHs4
Generic Pool Productions: http://www.genericpool.co.uk
Grace Francis DVD link: http://www.gracefrancis.com
John Gillan Polecam owner/operator: http://www.jgbroadcast.tv
PluralEyes software: http://www.singularsoftware.com/pluraleyes.html